The creeks around my home base of Salida, Colorado, are barely a trickle reflecting the drought gripping Colorado. The Big Arkansas River, my home water, is running at 200 CFS, the lowest I have ever seen it since I started fishing here in the early 1990s. I can wade across it just about anywhere. Normal is about 350 CFS. But at least it has some water and is fishable. Indeed, the fishing gurus at the Ark Anglers fly shop report that the fish are actually doing better than usual because they haven’t had to fight the usual artificially high summer flows that result when upstream reservoirs dump water to support the recreational whitewater rafting industry. The Arkansas is the most heavily rafted river in the world bar none! Literally thousands of rafts careen down the river each day all summer and into the fall.
Back in the 90s, the Big Ark was my favorite water. During the week, it was mostly deserted, with only a few hearty anglers scattered over almost 50 miles of good trout water. But even then, it was starting to be a battle with the recreational rafters. I was writing a conservation column for American Angler back then, and penned an article titled “Row vs. Wade” that documented the growing conflicts between the rafters, float fishermen, kayakers and the lonely angler like me in chest waders. After having boatloads of cheerful whitewater rafters plunging through honey holes I was targeting and asking me “how’s the fishing?”, flotillas of kayakers porpoising in rapids only a stone’s throw away that I knew held big rainbows, and float fishing guides letting their clients cast in pools just upstream from me on my side of the river, I suggested a river code of civility that respected the traditional wade fisherman with his limited range on the water (e.g., if you are a float fisherman and see a wade fisherman downstream, quit casting immediately and hug the bank on the other side of the stream till you are a quarter mile below him).
Unfortunately, when the Ark was declared a Gold Medal Water by the State of Colorado, which was like erecting a big neon sign for every angler in Denver and Colorado to come get it, and the creation of the Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area (AHRA), a joint federal-state effort ostensibly to better manage the 148 miles of river between Leadville and Pueblo, that actually resulted in attracting more hordes of campers in RVs and every other imaginable form of shelter to primitive campgrounds along the water, things just deteriorated. The weekends are a total write-off for any sane fly angler, and even during the week it isn’t unusual now to see dozens of anglers along the river in addition to all the hoi polloi on it in watercraft (oh, did I mention the addition of SUPs stand-up paddle boarders to the mélange??).
Now I know I am sounding like a curmudgeonly, grumpy old F**T, but as a result I just gave up fishing the Ark altogether during the summer and, like this year, just waited to early fall for my first outing on my beloved home water. This September I chose a stretch far enough above the AHRA campground at Rincon where float fisherman, rafters, and kayakers often use the boat ramp to launch and far enough below access points upstream that I might get lucky and not have to curse and wail when I got run over by knucklehead watercrafters—at least until later in the day. On a beautiful sunny fall day, I set out with high hopes….
It’s been a rewarding year writing my blog, and as of September 1st the number of views and visitors just surpassed all of 2017! 50,000 views and 20,000 visitors are in sight for 2018. As well as providing an admitted excuse to go fishing and explore remote places, my main goal is to help reinforce and build the constituency to preserve and protect these wild and wonderful places. An added and very satisfying benefit has been connecting with people and making new friends around the USA and the world—readers from over 50 countries. One example—a fellow from Australia is planning to come over and kayak fish with me next year!! But I think most gratifying and unexpected have been the heartwarming stories from readers like the young college student who wrote to say she had been searching for the name and location of the lake where her grandfather, who had recently passed away, took her fishing as a young girl. She wanted to revisit that special place as a tribute to him. She couldn’t find it until she happened to read my article on Island Lake in Colorado, and when she saw my photos knew that was the place. Brought tears to my eyes as I thought of the fishing trips I’ve been taking with my little granddaughter Aly and her Daddy this summer. Other readers shared happy memories of having fished, in their younger days, the creeks and lakes featured in my blog. In doing so they have enriched my life and made me determined to share more stories of special places in the coming year, knees willing and the creeks don’t rise!
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and
probably themselves will not be realized.”–Daniel Burnham
On my annual migration from Florida to Colorado this past June, I stopped in to see old friends in Fredericksburg where I lived in the mid-1980s. It’s a wonderful small city that can make a valid claim to being America’s most historic—George Washington’s mother and sister lived there, James Monroe maintained a law office there and served on the city council, and Civil War cannonballs still protrude from landmark buildings. What I saw did my heart good–my hat’s off to the community—you are looking great, a real tribute to years of smart, determined city planning and a lot of citizen initiative.
Fredericksburg will always have a special place in my heart and mind. My son Ben was born there, and we renovated an old historic house just down the street from Mary Washington’s home and grave.
At the same time,I was fortunate to serve on the city council for a couple of terms under the steady leadership of community and civil rights icon, the Rev. Lawrence Davies.
I was only 35 at the time and had lofty goals of implementing all the good land-use law and planning ideas I had soaked in since my law school graduation from savvy mentors like Richard Babcock (Mr. Zoning), Fred Bosselman (author of the ground-breaking book “The Taking Issue,” and Bill Reilly (my boss at the time at the World Wildlife Fund and later head of the U.S. EPA under H.W. Bush). Indeed, some of the old experienced hands on city council called me “White Horse,” and I am sure looking back I could be a pain in the arse. But they put up with me, and I learned a lot of about politics and how things really work in local government from these gentlemen.
Today it is heartening to see that the seeds we helped plant back then have sprouted and flourished thanks to successive enlightened city councils and hard work by hundreds of citizens. Several things stand out. First was the successful campaign to protect the scenic Rappahannock River that flows through the town and was my home water for canoeing and smallmouth bass fishing.
The City of Fredericksburg owned all the land on either side of the river for miles upstream, having obtained it from the Virginia Electric Power Company when its proposal for the massive Salem Church dam (which would have flooded all the property) was defeated. The land was pristine and undeveloped, but we discovered some unscrupulous developers were chopping down trees along the river so they could sell lots with “river views!” We put a stop to that on city council, and later the city dedicated an easement ensuring miles of city-owned shoreline–over 4,000 acres–will be preserved in perpetuity. At the same time, local whitewater/canoe guru Bill Micks, Virginia House of Delegate member Bob Ackerman (a dedicated conservation advocate), and I formed a new group we called Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) to act as the river’s advocate and protector.
I was absolutely delighted to find that from these humble beginnings at a meeting at the Fredericksburg City Library attended by maybe 15 people, it has grown into one of the premier river protection groups in the United States with a dedicated, hard-working staff with an office right on the river.
They have not only saved the river from development, but have made it fun and accessible to the public with great events and support for a wonderful trail system along the water.
That’s the second big achievement that boggled my mind. When I was on council the city had a small trail system with scattered sections along the river and city water supply canal. I started doing some exploring with my young toddler son Ben along some of the creeks that ran into the river and sections of the river itself with no easy public access. The vision of a comprehensive city-side trail system was embraced in the city’s new comprehensive plan, but frankly it was little more than a pipe dream. Fast forward thirty years and thanks to incredible work by the community, the results are nothing short of spectacular.
My jaw dropped when I saw the hundreds of people of all ages using the extensive trail system on a weekday. My friends told me they considered it to be one of the best, if not the best, community amenity in town.
That trail system has helped link the historic downtown to the rest of the community, and that downtown is so vibrant and lively today compared to the early 1980s when a new outlying shopping mall was sucking life out of the central business district. At that time, the city had a weak preservation ordinance that did not protect any structure built after 1870 and then only with delay periods when someone wanted to demolish an historic landmark. Several had already fallen to the wrecking ball, replaced by ugly modern buildings or parking lots. Having served on the Frank Lloyd Wright preservation commission in Oak Park, Illinois, while a young lawyer, I ran on a platform to strengthen the local preservation law and protect all buildings eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (then pre-1935). There was vocal opposition from the local downtown business association, but after the election and with stalwart support of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, we passed the new regulations. Soon progressive local business people embraced the downtown’s unique character as its economic ace-in-the-hole, and the rest is, as they say, history. Today the handsome historic downtown is booming thanks to their advocacy over the years since.
Another feature of the downtown that brought a smile to my face was the old train station. Unused and crumbling back in the 1980s, it was given new life when city council successfully pushed, along with then-governor Gerry Baliles, for commuter rail from Fredericksburg to Washington, D.C., and regular train service from Richmond through Fredericksburg to the nation’s Capitol.
The commute I used to do several days a week to Washington, D.C., on the interstate was an absolute nightmare back then. Today city residents have the luxury of train service thanks to successive city councils staying the course and backing it with tax dollars.
The other piece of good news played out on the outskirts west town across from the old Spotsylvania Mall, which as noted above had drained life from the downtown and sales tax dollars from city coffers like outlying shopping centers had done in many other communities across the country. To counter this, in the early 1980s, the city had annexed a large area of undeveloped property across from the mall, but had no comprehensive plan for this large tract. Already there were proposals for helter-skelter strip commercial centers, some massive projects along the river, and poorly designed housing. But starting in 1984 the city council sprang into action, appropriated funds for a major planning effort to ensure the newly annexed area would be developed in a well-designed manner, and then over the years worked closely with the major property owner, the Silver family. The result today is a booming, handsome well-landscaped business park with over 250 firms in well-designed buildings linked by sidewalks and parkways and some housing mixed in.
And I’ll have to admit a bit of devilish delight that the Central Park area, as it is now called, has far eclipsed the old, tattered mall in the county just across Route 3. It stands in stark contrast to the ugly mess that continues to creep out into the county and as a reminder of the value of good community planning.
I came away so proud of the citizens of Fredericksburg, and what they have accomplished working for over three decades with city officials. All of these major areas of progress are monuments to thoughtful city planning and community involvement. I hope they keep up the good work there in Fredericksburg. It’s inspiring.
Fifty years ago I was thrown together in a dorm room as a college freshman in Kansas with a kid from Junction City and a guy from Hutchinson. It was to be one of those serendipitous positive events that helped shape my life. I have heard horror stories from parents about their children’s and grandchildren’s college roommates from hell. Mine couldn’t have been better!
Josúe Perez was a tough, smart little sucker who, as the son of a decorated Sergeant Major in the Army, had been all oer the globe and knew how to take care of himself. He spoke fluent Spanish and was studying to be a teacher. Freeman Lance Miller, a music major and violin whiz, was a gentle soul who grew up in a “big” city close to my small rural hometown, but whom I had never met during high school although our paths had surely crossed dragging Hutch main street on Friday nights. I was just a tall, skinny kid just off the farm who loved nature and science and had aspirations to be a doctor.
We survived that first year as a team, and then became fraternity brothers, having a ball along the way as they corrupted a Mennonite kid by teaching me to dance and drink beer.
Lance transferred to Kansas University his junior year, and he became the doctor as well as a devoted Jayhawker! Joe went on to teach at our college then led an impressively varied international career including a stint as president of a technical college in Phoenix. I decided to forego medical school (damned advanced calculus) and opted to save the world as a lawyer, at a time when the country was in great social ferment. I was elected as chair of Kansas Collegiate Young Democrats (I think there were maybe 10 of us.) and my political fate was sealed.
On my fishing trip yesterday, on the cusp of Father’s Day, I thought a lot about my Dad, Benjamin Franklin Duerksen. Now how many men do you know named after that Founding Father! I am sure he was smiling at the fun I was having catching those frisky trout. He gave me my love of the outdoors—we spent many days and nights on the banks of the Little Ar-Kansas River near my hometown in Kansas fishing with worms and frogs for channel catfish, bullhead, and anything else that would bite. Dad was also a pro at noodling—illegal handfishing for big flathead catfish. Even Mennonites have vices!!
We later graduated to minnows and lures in lakes and chasing white bass, crappie, and anything else that would bite. On those exciting overnight trips to Kanopolis Reservoir, 60 miles away, we just slept in the big old 1951 DeSoto car, Dad in the front seat and me in the back.
We also spent a lot of time bird watching, especially on Sunday. After Sunday School he would head out into the sandhills in the DeSoto with my sister Susan and me while Mom was fixing our dinner (noon meal). I still have my first Audobon bird book…a prized possession.
Dad was a simple, laid-back Mennonite farm boy. He played football in college at 5’8” and 150 pounds, married Mom the day after she graduated from high school in 1942, served on the crew of a B-17 bomber in the Army Air Corps in WWII (which was highly unusual for a Mennonite kid given Mennonites are a pacifist religion). He came back home to farm with his father after the war, then started teaching in the 1950s to supplement the farm income when a couple of wheat crops got hailed out. He taught math and social studies for over 30 years in nearby small-town grade schools, sometimes serving as principal, always coaching basketball and baseball. A couple of years he coached my Cub Scout baseball team to the regional championship. We sat in front of the radio and listened and went to a lot of Hutch Juco and Wichita State basketball games together back then. On special trips to Kansas City, we watched the old KC Athletics at Municipal Stadium—still remember seeing Mantle and Maris hit back-to-back homers in 1960, the year Maris broke Ruth’s record. I got us into trouble when I jumped onto the field after the game to run the bases. Fortunately he rescued me before the umps could corral me. Thankfully he continued to farm so I got to spend a lot of time with him every summer driving tractor, hauling wheat to the mills, plowing fields, planting wheat in the fall while listening to the World Series on my transistor radio. Not many boys get to spend so much what we now call “quality” time with their dads. Not saying at the time I fully appreciated the dawn-to-dark work regimen during plowing season!
Dad was very easy-going. I only saw him lose his temper a couple of times and the closest he came to cussing was saying “by damn!” But he was also very competitive—never ever did he let me beat him at ping-pong or checkers, although I could best him on the b-ball court in H-O-R-S-E. He still shot a two-handed set shot of his day so I called jump and hook shots which he had trouble with. Mom was the day-to-day disciplinarian in the family, but believe me I remember well each of the three spankings I got from him. The worst was when as a teenager I was disrespectful of my Mom. Yikes!! Lesson learned!!
Dad never pushed me in sports or academics, and indeed he didn’t say a word when in my junior year in college I switched my long-time plan to be a doctor and instead went to law school. But I think I got his slight nod of approval the day after my graduation from law school, which he and Mom had driven to Chicago to attend. He was leaning back in a big easy chair in our apartment when he looked at me and asked, “So how much does a young lawyer make these days?” That was an unusual question from a Mennonite–they don’t dwell much on money. I answered, “About $16,000.” Which was about twice what he was making as a teacher after years in the classroom. His response? “Hmmm, I guess being a lawyer isn’t so bad after all.” I still can’t stop laughing when I think about that!! Thanks, Dad, for everything. Miss you.